This story is about Don Blair, his speed shop, and the guys who worked there back in the day. But it was a young Don Blair’s interest in racing at the dry lakes that propelled him into opening a small business selling speed parts. If any business contributed to hot rodding in Southern California, it was Blair’s Speed Shop in Pasadena when 25-year-old Don opened for business in 1946. (However, Don’s older brother, Bruce, was an equal racing competitor and contributor in the speed shop business before he was killed while riding in a ’34 Ford that hit a tree on Foothill Boulevard in Arcadia. Bruce had an ad in Hot Rod in 1948 for his own product line out of Blair’s Speed Shop that offered dealerships “Lower the front of your car with a (his) dropped axle”.)
All who worked there attributed their stint at Blair’s as their kick-start, by not only learning and mastering a trade, but acquiring a work ethic that carried throughout their lives. Blair’s would be the only place many would work before starting their own successful automotive-related businesses.
Blair’s Speed Shop could have been a trade school, because if you couldn’t weld before you enrolled (hired-on) you were a journeyman welder when you left. If you had a hard time rolling out of bed when you started, you were either drummed out by your peers or got your act together. If you had thin skin, you didn’t need to work there anyway.
You needed to be a quick study to work at Blair’s because it was kick-butt city with Don sipping on warm milk all day at the counter while holding a phone in each ear or on the squawk box to the back, the deafening sound of an uncorked race car screaming on the dyno (dyno time and analysis, less parts, went for $10, valve adjustment for $7), steel being ground and crashing to the floor in the chassis shop, and customers waiting at the counter for Don to say “you’re next”.
L.A. Gophers member Don Blair’s Modified was as aerodynamic as a parachute with way-tall D
Don didn’t use a cash register; all the money was kept in his wallet. And when he went to the bank, it was kept in his shirt pocket, because the robber would always go for the cash in a person’s wallet. Just a normal day at Foothill and Daisy!
Those of us who went to Blair’s were like kids in a candy store. In fact, the building was a candy factory before Don purchased the property! Thornton and Carlson Makers of Good Candy can be faintly seen on the front of the building above the Blair’s Speed Shop sign. Certainly candy factory applies to Blair’s Speed Shop, because Blair’s wasn’t just a place that sold the candy (speed equipment), they made the candy.
There will never be another place like Blair’s for the guys who worked there, or for us who went there. It is impossible to get every past employee’s take on the place because of the limited space, but here are some behind-the-scenes insights from some of the rodders, including Don, during its heyday. To a man, they all look back with fondness of their association with one another and with Don Blair who has lasted to this day, as you will soon learn.
This is Don’s word-for-word recollection of how it all started: “I was born in Highland Park near Los Angeles in 1921. The first five years of my life I don’t remember, but we moved to South Pasadena where I went to grammar school. I took a college preparedness course at Lincoln High School. I had a couple of semesters of shop classes, like auto shop. I didn’t distinguish myself in them but I enjoyed taking them. I went to Frank Wiggin’s Trade School from which I graduated with a B average and thought I’d go onto college. I went to Pasadena City College for about three months and that was the end of it … I couldn’t take it.
That’s Don standing next to his brother Bruce’s Deuce roadster at the lakes. They were as
“I loafed for about a year, around my parents’ house doing little jobs on my car and the neighbor’s stuff. Then I went to work for a small parts store in Los Angeles. At that point I met Jack McGrath who also worked for the parts store and later became famous for racing in the Indianapolis 500. We both quit when we learned there was an auto parts store near there with a machine shop. They hired us and that’s where I learned to do machine work, such as operating a Boring Bar and a valve-grinding machine.
“They’d send me out to buy mostly Model A and B crankshafts from the wrecking yards. I’d check them out and buy them for $5 or $10 and take them back to the shop. They’d grind them and used them in rebuilt engines.
“I decided I wanted to go out on my own. My grandfather had left me a small amount of money and with that I was able to buy a lot in Pasadena and put up a building on Arroyo Parkway right after the war. I think it’s still there today. I started out with one employee and somehow started selling used speed equipment and racing fuel. Tim Timmerman started working for me and he began building engines.
“Then I first moved to the northeast part of Pasadena in the middle of the block on Foothill Boulevard in the late ’40s to a 2,000-square-foot building. I stayed there awhile and I got a chance to sell it to put a good down payment on the corner of Foothill and Daisy. My brother, Bruce, and I were going to go together on the property, but he was killed while he was a passenger during a drag race in Arcadia. I paid $30,000 for the building and property.
“That was my first race car,” Don says. “In fact, one of my first cars period; my transpor
“When I moved, we dismantled the building down at the middle of the block and moved it down to the corner and that became the muffler shop. It is still there today. I had three muffler hoists, two underneath the roof and one outside.
“I was still dealing in a lot of used speed equipment, doing machine work, muffler work, and then we went into the chassis business. We built several match race drag cars.
“I got interested in circle track racing. That killed the drag racing also, as far as I was concerned, which only lasted a few seconds where circle track racing lasted a half-hour or so. At that point I had about 13 people working for me.
“I got a little bit antsy and decided I wanted to retire. I sold the business in 1975 to Phil Lukens who worked for me, and I retired. I tried to do my Sprint Car racing and finally realized I didn’t have enough money and went back to work.
“In about 1985 I opened a shop in Glendora, California, that specialized in engine rebuilding. We didn’t have any parts department there. I did pretty well in that and I was able to buy another piece of property in Covina, California, and put up a good-sized industrial building in downtown Covina.
“It’s amazing to me how many fellows who worked for me did so well on their own. Nice kids from nice homes, no riffraff … oh, there were a lot of cutups! I didn’t actually interview anybody for a job; I asked what they could do then I’d say, ‘go to work’. It was on-the-job training just like Pete Eastwood. Eastwood never worked for anybody before, he just picked up what he knew from his dad who restored Model Ts, but he also picked up what he knew working for me.”
Mike Hoag of Brea, California, hired on in 1965-66, and was in charge of the chassis shop where, among other products, they turned out tube axle assemblies for the ’55-57 Chevys by the score (the kits, including leaf springs, sold for $132.50): “Don Blair was probably the best guy I have ever worked for in my life,” Hoag, who stayed at Blair’s four years before forming M&S Welding with Sherm Gunn, says.
Bruce Blair in the No. 36 at Carrell Speedway (Nov. 30, 1947) was very much his own man, b
“Blair had four muffler racks; his muffler business was winding down. Out of four racks only one was kept busy all day because there were muffler shops springing up everywhere.
“By then we were doing a lot of engines and transmissions,” Hoag says, “mainly ’55-57 Chevys. We were taking out the Powerglide transmissions and replacing them with four-speeds. We did a lot of that. It just multiplied.
“Don had a friend who was an Oldsmobile dealer in Pasadena and knew that he could buy Chevy parts from any GM dealer, including his friend. He knew the part numbers, so he would buy all of the clutch linkage parts, cross shafts, and pedals for the manual transmissions. Don would buy 10 of everything.
“When I started to work at Blair’s I went upstairs for something and there were boxes of Ford Flathead Forgetrue pistons from the floor to ceiling against the north wall. Every year of the Winternationals a bunch of Ford Flathead guys would leave with boxes of those pistons. Don got good deals.
“We started by repairing a tube axle job that some shop botched up and we started doing more of that, one thing led to the next. We ended up not doing any muffler work at all.
“Don (Bushy) Wilson was constantly parking his car in front of the muffler racks. We’d have to find him and get him to move his car. We would ask him nicely not to park there. He did it once too often, so I decided I was going to weld his car to the rack so it would be there forever. I took a piece of angle iron and tack welded it to his frame and the other end to the muffler rack,” Hoag laughs.
“We were working late one night when Robby Robison took his Cad to the doughnut shop. He didn’t have any taillights on it because when he cut the top off, the wires that went up through the doorposts to the taillights were cut as well. It didn’t have a windshield either.
“He comes flying in though the back driveway, the car was probably 1 1/2 feet off the ground, sliding up to the muffler rack and the cops were right behind him. Robison gets out and says to the cop, ‘What’s happenin’ man?’ and the cop was fit to be tied. The cop said, ‘The taillights don’t work and it doesn’t have a windshield.’ Robison said, ‘But the wipers work.’ And he puts the wipers on and they’re flopping in the breeze. So the cop said, ‘That ought to be real good for your glasses in the fog.’ Before it was over, Robby had them in stitches saying, ‘We better not see that thing again,’ and left laughing themselves silly.
“Depending on who you were, you had a private charge account. You’d come in and get this camshaft or blower manifold and Don would write it up and put it in his file. That file was full of a lot of deadbeats. Guys owed Don a lot of money and took advantage of him. Some owed $2,000 or more.
“The State came in one time and went over Don’s books. They found this file of all of those invoices. Don wasn’t paying the sales tax because he hadn’t been paid himself. You can’t do that. They told Don he was in violation, and whether he collected the money or not, he had to pay the sales tax.
“They were there for three days. I said to Don, ‘Why don’t you turn this over to collections and pay them 15 percent?’ He just wouldn’t do it. Don was that kind of guy. He ended up paying all the back taxes.
“There was an area that we called the Bull Pen with grease and oil 6 inches thick. Rearend housings, broken blocks, and cylinder heads—it was nasty. Don used to talk about his rose garden and we’d go … yeah, it probably has the roses stacked up with old rearend housings.
Wally Parks, the future editor of Hot Rod, was president of SCTA when Don cranked off thos
“Don had a home up in the hills of Glendale. I had to go over there one time on a Sunday morning early for some reason. Don answered the door. He wanted to show me his rose garden. The inside of the house was very neat because of his wife—who, by the way, was quite a looker. I go out behind his house and it’s terraced about three levels and at the very back you could look over north Glendale. His rose garden didn’t have one leaf out of place. It was immaculate!
“When Sherm Gunn and I opened up M&S Welding, I’d work at Blair’s then go to our shop and work there at night. Gunn was a mechanic at a car dealership in Pasadena. We were doing a lot of production work for Ford Obsolete in Rosemead, axles, radius rods, and it just got more and more and more. Plus I got to do more sophisticated stuff on race cars and we started building the Funny Car chassis. I left in 1970.”
Phil Lukens, owner of Blair’s, had a friend who he was to meet at Blair’s and found out they needed help in the chassis shop; Lukens started the next day.
“I was doing straight axles; we were doing nothing but straight axles for years. When I became foreman in the chassis shop, which included muffler work, I had five guys working for me. Total, we probably had 12-14 people working at Blair’s. There were two people in the office, two counter guys, and Don. There was a driveshaft department, machine shop, dyno shop, and the chassis shop. We put a lot of work out of the shops.” Lukens has been at Blair’s ever since, having purchased the business from Don in 1975.
“There was an opening at Blair’s and I went to work in January 1962 out back in the fabrication shop,” Robby Robison of Arcadia begins. “I had learned how to weld in high school. Everybody started at the bottom.
“Customers would come in having an idea of what they wanted and we would fulfill their needs either with our engineering or theirs. We would take a stocker and change the engine or the drivetrain with different axles, front or rear.
“Blair didn’t get upset very often. Oh, he’d fire us about three or four times a year because of a lot of shenanigans that went on in the place. But when you came back from lunch it was business as usual. We’d set each other on fire. You didn’t carry a rag in your back pocket or it would be on fire before the day was out. Of course new guys didn’t know that. There was always somebody lighting somebody on fire in the back where I worked. Don would get on the intercom and say, ‘Outside … outside, do I smell fire out there?’ We’d say, ‘We’re good,’ and Don would say, ‘I smell smoke!’
“On Saturdays, the minute that Don would leave for home and his Chevy was out of sight, we’d start working on our own stuff. Or we’d have a Destruction Derby.
“Don would buy cars from a couple of wrecking yards just to get the components out of them. So we would use the cars on Saturday afternoons and go down the alley around the shop and T-bone the cars on our figure-eight track. Or we’d go across the street to a defunct restaurant that had a tenth of a mile paved oval around the building, which was the original parking lot, and we’d race go-karts over there. At night we’d go to Fontana or Irwindale to race or Lyons on Sundays. You could drag race three or four days a week.
“Don would come to work on Monday and the cars would all be beat up. We’d blame it on the local vandals. He knew what happened to them, but if they got banged up too bad he wasn’t too excited about that. We’d cut the cars up, call the wrecking yard, and have them come get them and they would buy them for scrap.
The dry lakes were in the middle of nowhere in 1947 but that didn’t stop the throngs from
“We had a guy come in one time with a ’55 Chevy with a real nice paintjob on it and he wanted the fenderwells radiused. Mike Hoag told him he had a special tool that could cut the fenderwells out and it wouldn’t burn the paint. When the guy came back to pick up his car, of course the paint was all burnt. Hoag never thought the guy believed him and that he was kidding!
“I lived next door to Blair’s. I got an old television, took the guts out, and my snake Julius Squeezer lived in the TV. I’d put the snake on the dash of my Killer Whale, which was a ’51 Cadillac. We’d go every day to In-N-Out for lunch in that car. I took the top off, no windshield, and no top. I’d have to go real slow over driveways and railroad tracks without a top because the body would flex so bad that the doors would fly open. Anyway, I’d put the snake on the dash and the gas station attendant (remember those days?) thought it was a fake and about fainted when it moved.
“I fed the snake rats, and this particular rat, the snake wouldn’t eat. I took it to Blair’s and as a joke I let it go on his counter. Don fell in love with it. It was a white and black rat and he named it Thirilla. It lived among the catalogs and would come out on the counter and the customers would scream and Don would know exactly what happened, he knew somebody had found the rat. Thirilla would eat Don’s pumpernickel bread. Don would drink raw Alta Dena dairy milk and eat butter sandwiches that his dad would bring when Mr. Blair would do the books.
“The snake died and we didn’t know what to do with it. So I put it in the car and drove to Bob’s Big Boy. There were three girls sitting on a bus stop bench and we threw the snake on the girls’ laps. Two of the girls jumped up and started screaming real loud. The other girl stayed on the bench with the snake on her lap. She lost her voice she was screaming so loud. We drove around the block and around the front of Bob’s and all three were holding each other and screaming and the snake was in the gutter.”
Robison of Vintage Race Car Restoration created the Legends of Speed Motor Sports. Robison, along with another former employee, Eric Vaughn, organized the Blair’s Speed Shop 60th anniversary gathering at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona in 2009.
“My grandfather,” Don recalls, “left me a small amount of money with which I was able to b
Doug Robinson opened Horsepower Engineering in Pasadena by working out of his garage in 1961 and moving to Fulton Avenue in January 1962. Robinson has been in business at that location ever since as a full service performance shop.
“I lived across the street from Don on Sierra Vista Avenue near South Pasadena when I was a kid. Don called me and offered me a job just after I graduated from Wilson High in 1956. I started going to Pasadena City College and worked for Don over the summer and after school. I was a flunky, starting out sweeping the floor, chasing and delivering parts. I worked at Blair’s part time at first, and then I had to drop out of school because my dad had died and I had to support myself and my mom.
“Don sent me down to Pasadena City Hall to look up the records to see who owned the property where the shop is now on Daisy and Foothill. Don didn’t want to pay the commission to a realtor if he didn’t have to. He ended up paying the commission anyway.
“I learned how to weld and began helping in the muffler shop. After a while I was pretty much the lead guy back there. I was at Blair’s from 1956-60. I went into the Army in 1960.
This ad let readers know that the proprietor of Blair’s Auto Parts not only drove the fast
“I’ve tried to run my business like Don ran his. He taught me a lot about business, scruples, common sense, and all. He’d let you have the run of the place after work, you could use the equipment. I built a blower drive there on an old lathe that was used to straighten driveshafts. He’d help you buy parts and give you his opinion. He liked hiring people and teaching them.
“They called him Double Dollar Don—as in taking advantage of people. Anyone who worked for Don will dispute that. A guy would bring in a manifold and sell it to Blair and Don would give him $50 for it. Don would mark it up to a $100 and set it out on the counter. The guy couldn’t understand why he couldn’t buy it back for $50. That’s where the double-dollar came from.”
Don “Bushy” Wilson
Don Wilson (who was quite ill and died shortly after my interview), along with his other ventures, was part owner of the Long Beach Swap Meet, as well as a partner in Special Projects Motorsports in Orange, California, after leaving Blair’s.
“Blair’s was an institution,” Wilson stated. “I lived in Pasadena and was a parts driver/counter-person at Blair’s. I knew the prices and how to sell parts and did a little work in the back. I’d go to the Sprint Car races with Blair at Ascot Park in Gardena to sell fuel and I got to be in the infield. Blair had the only Offy-powered Sprint Car there. When Danny Roberts took over the motor building, the car ran better and more reliably.
“If you made a mistake Don would take you to the back of the shop and quietly explain to you what you did wrong but stressed to not do it again. He was a gentleman.
“When Don was out buying parts, every pocket of Don’s had money in it of different denominations. Depending on what the price of the item, Don would reach into a certain pocket and say, “I only have so much on me”. Don was called the hook. He’d get your money by hook or by crook,” Wilson chuckled. “But Don gave good value for the money. He was as straight arrow as they come.
“When Super Shops went into business people wouldn’t even touch Blair’s, but he had the last laugh. When they went out of business, he bought a lot of their inventory. He was real good at buying cheap and selling later.”
Don was an original member of the California Roadster Association (CRA) but when the track
Those were just a few of the fond remembrances from the guys who worked at Blair’s. Don Blair lives in Covina and still supports his much-loved Sprint Car racing.
Blair’s is alive and well thanks to owner Phil Lukens during these difficult times. While others claim to be the oldest speed shop—nope, do the math.
And before you think Blair’s Speed Shop is some sort of museum stuck in time—it’s not. Yes it is scaled down from the past, but you can still get a driveshaft-twistin’ motor built plus there’s lots of speed equipment on the shelves for sale. Stop in and shop. Experience the place for yourself. You might regain a tiny part of your youth.
The Chevy II
Pete Eastwood: “General Motors sent Don a brand-new 396ci Chevy for the AFX Chevy II in the crate; no one else except the factory had ever seen one, not even the dealers. Mike Hoag fabricated a blower manifold out of aluminum plate, milled it all out, and welded it together because you couldn’t buy one. Steve Bovan matched-raced that car all over the United States, including Hawaii.”
Pete Eastwood worked at Don Blair’s in the early ’70s but he knew first-hand about Don’s Camaro because he was allowed to accompany Bovan to the drags as a youngster: “It was one of the very first fiberglass flip-top Funny Cars on the West Coast. The whole car was built right there at Blair’s Speed Shop. Mike Hoag built the chassis. They bought a brand-new Chevy truck and lengthened the chassis, made a ramp truck out of it, and put a sleeper on it. I remember them bringing the new truck into the speed shop with the cab and chassis and they lengthened the driveshaft, built the ramp bed right at Blair’s. Don had a touring Funny Car operation right there out of the speed shop.”
“One of Blair’s customers made that dyno,” Tim Timmerman recalls, one of Blair Speed Shop’
“We made everything in house,” Robby Robison says. “The radius rod kits, the weight transf
“We made everything in house,” Robby Robison says. “The radius rod kits, the weight transf
Phil Lukens behind the counter is a hands-on owner; in fact Lukens is Blair’s Speed Shop,
The Camaro Pete Eastwood worked at Don Blair’s in the early ’70s but he knew first-hand ab
The Chevy II Pete Eastwood: “General Motors sent Don a brand-new 396ci Chevy for the AFX C
Before you think Blair’s is some sort of museum stuck in time—it’s not. Sure, things are q
“I had three muffler hoists, two underneath the roof and one outside,” Don says. Little ha
“The tube bender was built in the ’50s and used a Model T rearend and transmission. Somebo